Members of the class of 2011, I am truly delighted to join Dean Salovey in welcomingyou to Yale College. And I want to extend a warm welcome also to the parents,relatives, and friends who have accompanied you here. To parents especially, Iwant to say thank you for entrusting your very talented and promising childrento us. We are delighted to have them with us, and we pledge to do our best toprovide them with abundant opportunities to learn and thrive in the four yearsahead.
Three weeks ago, as you were beginning to prepare yourselves for your journey to NewHaven, I spent a very pleasant weekend reading a new book by one of ourdistinguished Sterling Professors, the former Dean of the Yale Law School,Anthony Kronman, who now teaches humanities courses in Yale College. I had oneof those experiences that I hope you have time and again during your four yearshere. I was disappointed to finish reading the book. It was so beautifullywritten, so closely reasoned, and so utterly transparent in its exposition and its logic. I was disappointed because I wanted the pleasure of my reading to go on and on, through the lovelysummer afternoon and into the evening.
Professor Kronman's book, Education's End, is at once an affirmation of the essentialvalues of the humanities in undergraduate education and a critique of the humanities curriculum as it has evolved over the past 40 years. Professor Kronman begins with a presumption that a college education should be about more thanacquainting yourself with a body of knowledge and preparing yourself for avocation. This presumption is widely shared. Many who have thought deeply abouthigher education—including legions of university presidents starting most eloquently with Yale's Jeremiah Day in 1828—go on to argue that a university education should develop in you what President Day called the “discipline ofthe mind”—the capacity to think clearly and independently, this classical formulation of the rationale for liberal education. He argues that undergraduate education should also encourage you to wrestle with the deepest questions concerning lived experience: What constitutes a goodlife? What kind of life do you want to lead? What values do you hope to live by? What kind of community or society do you want to live in? How should you reconcile the claims of family and community with your individual desires? In short, Professor Kronman asserts that an important component of yourundergraduate experience should be seeking answers to the questions thatmatter: questions about what has meaning in life.
The four years ahead offer you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pursue your intellectual interests wherever they may lead, and, wherever they maylead, you will find something to reflect upon that is pertinent to your questfor meaning in life. It is true that your professors are unlikely to give youthe answers to questions about what you should value and how you should live.We leave the answers up to you. But I want to make very clear that we encourageyou to ask the questions, and, in seeking the answers, to use the extraordinary resources of this place—a brilliant and learned faculty, library and museum resources that arethe equal of any campus anywhere, and curious and diverse classmates who willaccompany you in your quest.
Because of their subject matter, the humanities disciplines do have a special role ininspiring you to consider how you should live. But I also want to suggest toeach of you that questions that bear on the shaping of your life will arise inwhatever subjects you choose to study. You will find that virtually everydiscipline will provide you with a different perspective on questions of valueand lead you to fresh insights that will illuminate your personal quest.
Your philosophy professors, for example, aren't likely to teach you the meaning oflife, but they will train you to reason more rigorously and to discern more readily what constitutes a logically consistent argument and what does not. And they will lead youthrough texts that wrestle directly with the deepest questions of how to live, from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Nietzsche and beyond.
Your professors of literature, music, and art history will not tell you how to live,but they will teach you to read, listen, and see closely, with a keener appreciation for the artistry that makes literature, music, andvisual art sublime representations of human emotions, values, and ideas. And theywill lead you through great works that present many different models of how,and how not, to lead a good life.
In your effort to think through how you wish to live and what values matter mostto you, you will find that challenging questions arise not only in thehumanities. Long ago, I taught introductory economics in Yale College. I alwaysbegan by telling my students that the course would change their lives. I stillbelieve this. Why? Because economics will open you to an entirely new anddifferent way of understanding how the world works. Economics won't prescribefor you how society should be organized, or the extent to which individualfreedom should be subordinated to collective ends, or how the fruits of human labor should be distributed at home and around the world. But understanding thelogic of markets will give you a new way to think about these questions, and, becauselife is lived within society and not in abstraction from it, economics willhelp you to think about what constitutes a good life.
Your biology and chemistry professors will not tell you how to live, but thediscoveries made in these fields over the last century have already extendedhuman life by 25 years in the United States. As the secrets of the human genomeare unlocked and the mechanisms of disease uncovered, life expectancy may wellincrease by another decade or two. You may want to ponder how a longer life spanmight alter your thinking about how to live, how to balance family and career,and how society should best be organized to realize the full potential ofgreater human longevity.
Finally,it is at the core of the physical sciences that one finds some of the deepestand most fundamental questions relating to the meaning of human experience. Howwas the physical universe created? How long will it endure? And what is theplace of humanity in the order of the universe?
For the next four years, each of you has the freedom to shape your life and preparefor shaping the world around you. You will learn much about yourself and yourcapacity to contribute to the world not only from your courses, but also fromthe many friends you make and the rich array of extracurricular activitiesavailable to you. Your courses will give you the tools to ask and answer the questions that matter most, and yourfriendships and activities will give you the opportunity to test and refineyour values through experience.
Let me warn you that daily life in Yale College is so intense that it may sometimesfeel as if you do not have time to stop and think. But, in truth, you have fouryears—free from the pressures of career and family obligations that you willencounter later — four years to reflect deeply on the life you wish to lead andthe values you wish to live by. Take the time for this pursuit. It may prove tobe the most important and enduring accomplishment of your Yale education. Thankyou and welcome to Yale College.